If you carry a gun, you’re bound to wonder how your gun-handling and shooting skills compare to others.

There’s one way to find out.

The first thing you’ll probably learn at your first shooting match is that you do not shoot as fast, smoothly or accurately when you’re on stage all alone under the spotlight as you do in your daydreams. The second thing you’re likely to learn is that you need more training so your mind is not constantly over-revving trying to figure out what you’re doing and what you should be doing next.

The first time you step up to the line in pistol competition of any kind, you’ll have butterflies in your stomach, a pounding heartbeat, difficulty breathing and ringing in your ears. The palm of your shooting hand will be clammy and your trigger finger may be numb. Sending real bullets downrange with a bunch of other armed people watching, even friendly armed people, is hard on the nerves. That’s why it’s a very good thing to do. Competing with your carry gun will give you confidence that you can shoot under pressure. Not the ultimate pressure. Competition is not nearly as hard on the nerves as the real thing such game-playing is supposed to simulate, but it’s about as much pressure as you’ll really want to manage with a gun in your hand.

If the real thing should ever come along, the pressure on your mind and body will be multiplied at least a hundred times. If there are other armed people present, they will be doing a lot more than watching and at least some of them will be anything but friendly. But that’s not something most of us get a chance to practice on a regularly scheduled basis, which is why we invented games in the first place.

Remember how much you enjoyed playing games when you were a kid? Playing games is fun, which is nature’s way of telling us she’s got something we need to learn and learn good. Every ball game ever invented, from baseball to golf, is nothing more than marksmanship practice with a little stylized adversity thrown in. (An exception is American football, which is an oddball sort of steal-the-pig-and-try-to-escape-with-it-back-to-your-own-dinner-table-before-the-cops-catch-you sort of game.) One-on-one sports are less lethal forms of dueling with firearms, fists or swords dressed up as boxing, billiards or tennis.

While women are usually equal and often better pistol shots than men with comparable experience, the offensive/defensive strategy and tactics they learned playing the girls’ game of hide-and-seek is not of the same advanced quality as the boys’ game of cops-and-robbers. Nevertheless, I’d be willing to bet that little girls pull the heads off their dolls a lot more often than little boys pull the heads off their G.I. Joes, so it’s not that girls don’t have a killer instinct. It’s just that they need more practice being discriminatory, decisive and aggressive. Competition can teach these things in a hurry. Today’s deceptively delicate-looking little Russian stars of big-time women’s tennis sure learned it. Most criminals are under the impression that any prey-species female has been taught by her mother to be too nice a person to shoot them between the eyes with a .45, which is a lesson they will learn too late to pass on to their professional associates.

Training is competitive game-playing too, to a large extent. But in a training class you have a range master keeping an eye on you ready to grab you before your mind wanders off in the direction of making a big mistake. In competition, you’re supposed to know how to keep an eye on yourself, so the range officer can score your performance rather than grab your gun. It follows that training should precede competition.

The best firearms training academies in the West, in my personal opinion, are TFTT in California, Gunsite and Yavapai Firearms Academy in Arizona, and Thunder Ranch formerly in Texas and now in Oregon. Spend a few days at any of these places getting your basics down and your head straight and you’ll be ready to compete with anybody anywhere anytime.

Handgun competition comes in several different forms.

IPSC/USPSA: When Jeff Cooper and his buddies got together in Los Angeles back in the 1950s and did a little shooting together under the moniker Southwest Pistol League, an entirely new doctrine of the defensive handgun quickly evolved. It was called the Modern Technique of the Pistol, and it elevated the practice of combat shooting among civilians, military and law enforcement to the startling levels of effectiveness we see today. Soon the organizers took over civilian competition and changed “combat shooting” to “practical shooting” in the name of political correctness. Thus the International Practical Shooting Confederation and its U.S. counterpart, the United States Practical Shooting Association, were born. Soon after that, a war erupted between “game-player” and “martial artist” factions within IPSC. The game-players wanted to play with real guns the way they played computer games and never imagined they might have to shoot a real person in real life. The martial artists saw IPSC as fundamental practice for their true purpose, which was being able to shoot a real person in real life should it ever become necessary. The IPSC club nearest you will probably be dominated by one or the other of these two factions, but you can ignore the politics and get out of it what you want to get out of it. Competing in this fast run-and-gun action sport can teach you a lot of things about you and your gun. Just don’t let the game-players teach you any of their cheap tricks and gamey habits, which are potentially suicidal on the street.

IDPA: the more gamey IPSC became, the more serious shooters drifted away from it. In the mid-1990s, legendary 1911 shooter and pistolsmith Bill Wilson started up a new organization called the International Defensive Pistol Association in the hope of restoring a respect for sensible tactics to the combat shooting game. The effort has, in large part, proved effective, and IDPA is where you’ll find a lot of real-world shooters competing today. It’s not as much fun for the spectators to watch as IPSC (no raceguns allowed), and you won’t get off nearly as many rounds, but each round will count more in your training regimen. There is even some evidence that the influence of IDPA is serving to bring IPSC back toward its roots. Unfortunately, there is also some evidence that IDPA is becoming more stylized and going down the same road traveled by IPSC earlier.

GSSF: Glock realized early on that its mushrooming ranks of civilian Glock owners would have more fun with their guns and buy even more if they could enjoy the camaraderie of fellow “Glocksters” and compete now and then in low-key shooting matches designed not for brutal professional and semipro competition provided by the likes of IPSC but simply to familiarize themselves with the little black guns for which they had developed an abiding affection. Glock Shooting Sports Foundation matches are simple events -– no drawing from holsters allowed and no tactics required -– peopled by families with children, grandmothers, housewives and working women, men who would never pull the trigger on their home protection Glock otherwise, and a few sandbagging master shooters providing free entertainment. The shoots are fun and relaxing, and almost nobody is there to win. In fact, prizes are awarded in so many categories it’s almost a random draw that determines who takes something home as proof of his or her advancing skills. GSSF shoots, unlike the hard-core competition circuit events, are relatively few and far between but worth a visit on a lazy weekend afternoon.

NRA: The mother organization of all American shooters continues to offer a wide range of competition, relatively little of it cutting-edge but all of it worthwhile. NRA bull’s-eye competition is always good to help you refine the fundamentals of marksmanship and NRA Action Pistol is an easier version of the IPSC discipline.

Cowboy Action Shooting: In the somewhat unlikely but entirely possible event that your carry gun is a single-action revolver, one of the most popular gun games ever is designed to give you all the practice you want. The Cowboy Action Shooting matches of the Single Action Shooting Society will take you through a variety of Old West shooting scenarios, if not realistic in historical terms at least as real as any shootout ever shot by Roy Rogers or John Wayne. The game is focused on fun and socialization as much as shooting and you’ll even be encouraged to dress the part.

Some more specialized types of handgun competition are popular in different regions of the country, close-range bowling pin shooting and long-range metallic silhouette shooting for instance. Local gun clubs are your best source of information about what kind of competition is available nearby.

For some of these games, you can show up with your carry gun and your concealment holster and start competing. Some others require most specialized guns and equipment and are not particularly relevant to the way you’ll likely use your gun in a defensive situation. Nevertheless, any kind of shooting is better than no kind of shooting.

It’s an unbreakable house rule that you risk embarrassment when you play any kind of competitive game, high-intensity gun games probably more than any other. But if you’re afraid to get out there and start pulling the trigger in front of strangers, all of whom are hoping against hope that you’ll screw up, you’re risking a lot more than a short-lived blush.